June 25 marked the 55th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War, the first hot engagement of the Cold War. Although the date may have little meaning for many Americans, it altered my personal and cultural history forever. As a Korean American, I've lived a dual existence defined by two political and cultural influences. My parents were born in Korea in 1950, shortly after the outbreak of the war. During their childhoods, hunger and death were as prevalent as the will to survive.
Because of U.S. investment in developing and securing South Korea, my parents were able to immigrate in 1973. They met in New York, fell in love and were married.
For 30 years, my parents, who initially spoke no English, worked backbreaking hours. My father drove a taxi, and my mother worked as a seamstress. Eventually, they saved enough to open a business of their own, but they never took a day off. At their expense and sacrifice, I lived the quintessential American life and lacked for nothing. I became the first person in my family to graduate from college and, then, from graduate school.
When I traveled to Korea in the summers to study its culture and language, I never was fully accepted as a Korean. I never felt fully accepted in the United States as an American, either. I felt trapped in the gray area of cultural ambiguity.
When I read that a ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of the Korean War would be held June 25, 2000, at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, I felt a curious need to attend, yet I was surprised by the wave of emotion I experienced when I saw the memorial. I stared into the faces of the 19 soldier statues and read the inscription on the memorial's granite wall:
"Freedom is not free."
Ever since that day, I have visited the memorial every June 25 to place flowers and to sit by the pool of remembrance to reflect and to offer a word of prayer. It's my way of showing my appreciation for the freedoms I tend to take for granted. It's also my way to connect my two cultural identities.
My visit this year was especially meaningful because I brought along my wife and our newborn son. One day, I'll explain to our son the extraordinary set of events that began 55 years ago and set in motion my improbable family history. I'll tell him about his grandparents and about how U.S. soldiers paid the price for our freedom today.
Recently, unexpectedly, I've felt that my Korean and American identities are beginning to converge, a welcome surprise. This freedom to embrace my cultural duality is at the heart of the American experience. For me, the cost of that freedom, great as it was, was paid for me. That is why I return every June to the memorial, in remembrance and gratitude.
-- Thomas S. Kim